Gearing up for aluminum repair

Jan. 1, 2020
Be cautious prioritizing your aluminumn repair equipment purchases.

Is your shop prepared to repair aluminum vehicles or aluminum parts? Many automakers have announced they will produce more aluminum-intensive vehicles. Others have hinted that aluminum will be coming in the near future. There is a lot of speculation that several automakers will be making all-aluminum vehicles, but even if that doesn't happen, most vehicle makers will use much more aluminum for cosmetic panels and other parts.

The collision repair industry has heard this speculation before, but with the recently announced Federal CAFE standards of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, lighter parts are inevitable, and aluminum is one of the best options.

Have a special cart or toolbox for aluminum tools and label them "aluminum only" so they are not confused with tools intended for steel repair. (IMAGES / I-CAR)

Some collision shops went "all-in" gearing up for aluminum the last time we thought it was going to be the next hot material. If you didn't jump on this bandwagon the last time around, this time exercise caution and gear up slowly. Many shops previously outspent any chance of being profitable by overprojecting the true repair opportunity.

If your shop hasn't done a lot of aluminum repair in the past, it probably doesn't make sense to spend many thousands of dollars on equipment before you know how much aluminum repair opportunity you might realize. Considering these factors, which equipment should you purchase for your shop without breaking the bank, but still providing the biggest bang for the buck?

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Hand tools specially made for aluminum repair would be a good place to start. Tools that are used for repairing steel should never be used for repairing aluminum. Cross contamination can occur, which will cause galvanic corrosion. Even a hammer and dolly or a pick used on steel can imbed small particles of steel into aluminum if used on both substrates.

Hammers and dollies made for aluminum typically have highly polished surfaces, or the surfaces that contact the aluminum may be covered with leather. Wood, plastic or rubber mallets also are used so they don't stretch the aluminum when working out dents. Other hand tools such as picks, vise grips and clamps for aluminum would be a good investment. It would be a very good idea to have a special cart or toolbox for the aluminum tools and to color-code or label these tools so they are used on the proper substrates and returned to the right toolbox.

Another necessary tool for aluminum repair is a dent puller. Many aluminum parts do not allow for access to the back side for repairs. This lack of access makes a weld-on-tab type puller a must. You will pay quite a bit more for these pullers than you would for a puller designed for steel because pullers made for aluminum must produce much more amperage due to the ability of aluminum to easily conduct current. Without this tool you will end up scrapping a lot of easily repairable aluminum parts that are typically very expensive and therefore have the most labor potential.

Given the fact that you typically make much better gross margin (roughly double) repairing parts than you do by replacing them, this is a worthwhile investment. A bare-bones aluminum dent puller can be found for about $3,000 while a puller kit with a cart and accessories will set you back $6,000 or more. These accessories are nice, but get some input from your technicians as to what they really think they will use; too often these extras merely sit idle.

If you decide to just dip your toe in the water before going all-in, you might want to wait until you know how much aluminum repair actually comes through your door before purchasing an aluminum welder. A base model aluminum welder starts at about $5,000. That price is without the $1,200 spool gun that you would not want to do without. Because aluminum wire is much softer than steel wire it is very difficult to push it through the long wire liner like a conventional welder without causing wire feeding problems and tangles referred to as "birds nesting."

To avoid this problem, at the very least, you need a spool gun, or you could add an even better option with a push-pull gun, which would start at about $2,000. Now you are making a serious investment just for an inexpensive machine. Most OEMs require a specific brand of aluminum welder in order to be included in their aluminum repair network, and many of those machines start at $20,000. Before making such a large investment, you may want to see what brand of vehicle you most often repair in your shop. If you prematurely buy a Brand X welder and later find out that you get mostly Mercedes-Benz vehicles in your shop that require a Brand Y welder, you will be stuck with the wrong machine, which is an expensive mistake.

Some shops in the early stages of preparing for more aluminum repairs (repairing mostly outer body panels) sublet the few repairs that require welding to a local welding shop. Once a shop actually sees that they do enough welding repairs to justify the investment, they are more comfortable taking that leap. If you plan to jump right into repairing harder-hit structural repairs, a welder would certainly be justified, but you should really do a detailed market analysis to determine how much aluminum repair you may draw into your shop.

There is a lot more equipment that will be required to qualify your shop as a full-service structural aluminum repair facility. This can get very expensive, which is why you need to prioritize your purchases and decide for yourself how deeply you want to delve into this area. Items such as self-piercing rivet guns, fixture benches and clean-rooms can break the bank if you cannot bring in enough aluminum repairs to support the investment.

This is why many shops have decided to gear up for aluminum repair gradually and incrementally invest in the big-ticket items as their share of aluminum repairs increases. It's risky to assume you will take in enough aluminum repairs to make these purchases worthwhile; therefore you would be wise to have historical documentation of actual repairs before you jump the gun and end up with expensive dust collectors.

Editor's note: Shawn Collins is a senior technical service engineer for 3M. He was an ASE-certified collision technician for 26 years and has been an I-CAR instructor for 19 years. He teaches more than 50 different training programs and is both a steel and aluminum welding qualification test administrator for collision shops and insurance companies.